Trinity/Triad in Ancient Egypt

In commemoration of Trinity Sunday (June 7, 2020), and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it is worth considering some interesting, albeit rather loose, parallels to the idea (and mode of expression) attested in other ancient religious traditions. Perhaps the most noteworthy examples come from ancient Egypt, where the symbolism of the number three was, in a variety of ways, consistently applied to concepts of deity, especially in terms of triadic structures and formulae—involving groups of three deities. In ancient Egypt, as in other cultures, the number three could be used as a shorthand to indicate plurality and multiplicity (i.e. the first number after two, beyond duality). In Egyptian script, the plural could be indicated by three strokes or by repeating a sign three times.

Triads of Egyptian deities are well-known, with numerous and varied examples at hand in the surviving texts and inscriptions. What is significant is the way that these triads express both unity and multiplicity—the one and the many (three)—at times using both singular (“he”) and plural (“they”) pronouns when referring to the triad. This will be discussed further below.

Different sorts of triads, typical of the syncretistic tendencies in Egypt whereby deities (and/or conceptions and manifestations of deity) are combined and united in various ways. This fundamental syncretism distinguished Egyptian religion from the other cultures of the Ancient Near East, where such combinations are attested much less frequently. Three kinds of triads may be mentioned:

    • Mythological—that is, deities described in the manner of human beings (with personalities, etc) about whom tales (i.e. “myths”) may be told
    • Cosmological—the work of creation and natural phenomena described in terms of the actions of, and relationships between, divine powers
    • Theological—i.e., deities related to one other conceptually, in an attempt to describe the nature and characteristics of deity, often in somewhat more abstract terms.

One common “mythological” triad in ancient Egypt is the natural combination of father, mother, and child (son), reflecting the dynamic of the human family. The best known examples of this sort are: Amun-Mut-Knonsu (from Thebes), Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem (from Memphis), and Osiris-Isis-Horus (from Abydos). The king (Pharaoh) is often identified with the son in this triad, understood as a manifestation (or ‘incarnation’) of the deity on earth. A similar incarnation, in animal form, is the Apis bull; the Memphite theology surrounding the Apis identified it, for example, with the divine triad of Osiris-Atum-Horus, or Ptah-Re-Horus (cf. Morenz, p. 143).

Perhaps the most famous (and well-known) cosmological triad involves the manifestation of the Creator deity [Re] in the form (or symbol) of the sun during its daily course: Khepri in the morning, Re in midday, and Atum in the evening. These associations are known as early as the Pyramid Texts, but find their definitive formulation in the later Turin papyrus, in which the deity says “I am Khepri in the morning, Re at noon, Atum in the evening”. In the Book of the Dead, the Creator deity (represented by the Sun), is called “the aspect of the three” (Morenz, p. 145). With the setting of the sun, the deity Re is united with Osiris in the underworld (as Re-Osiris). A similar sort of combination was expressed, at Memphis in the late period, by the triad of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

A triadic construct, both cosmological and theological in nature, is the famous Ennead (group of nine deities) of the Heliopolitan theology. According to this cosmology, the universe is represented by three generations (comprised of four male-female pairs) of offspring from the Creator deity Atum, with whom they are ultimately identified. The best known theological triad from ancient Egypt is found in the Leiden Hymn to Amun (late 14th-century B.C.), which gives definitive expression to the identification of the Creator deities Re and Ptah with the high deity Amun (whose name means something like ‘the Hidden One’):

“All gods are three: Amun, Re, Ptah; they have no equal. His name is hidden as Amun, he is Re before (humankind, i.e. visible to them), and his body is Ptah.” (stan. 300)

This dates from the revivial of Amun-religion, in the time of Tutankhamun (following the reign of Akhenaten), and is similarly expressed, visually, on a trumpet from his burial treasure (cf. Hornung, p. 219):

Admittedly, these Egyptian triads, are quite different from the Christian trinity, in two important respects: (a) they are part of a highly developed polytheistic religious outlook, and are ultimately tri-theistic rather than trinitarian; and (b) there is no parallel whatever for the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. Something roughly comparable to the idea of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God is, up to a point, found in Egyptian religious thought—i.e. the king (or the deceased) as the incarnate Son of the Creator (Re/Ptah/Atum)—but nothing like the Holy Spirit. What Christianity and Egyptian religion have most in common is the basic conceptual vocabulary of “one in three, three in one”, as applied to God, however different the overall religious culture might otherwise be. It is possible that this theological language (mode of expression) in Egypt exercised some influence on Christian theology during the two centuries prior to the council of Nicaea (and the establishment of the Nicene Creed). The importance of Alexandria is often cited as the connecting point with Egypt’s past, preserving ways of religious thinking and formulating that go back centuries. The first-century Jewish philosopher and commentator Philo of Alexandria offers an interesting comparison for how the ancient Egyptian triadic theological expression might have been preserved. In his Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo comments on God’s appearance to Abraham in the form of three persons (Gen 18:1-2ff), and seeks to explain this in a manner not too dissimilar from the ancient Egyptian triadic formulation:

“…it is reasonable for one to be three and for three to be one, for they were one by a higher principle [kat’ a)nw/teron lo/gon]; but, when counted with the chief powers…He makes the appearance of three to the human mind. …. the spiritual eyes of the virtuous man are awake and see….he begins to see the holy and divine vision in such a way that the single appearance appears as a triad, and the triad as a unity.” (IV. 2, Loeb translation)

This statement by Philo lacks the ontological and metaphysical basis of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but, in its clear expression of God as both one and three—trinity (triad) and unity—it points in the direction the Trinitarian language utilized by believers, even to this day, as we attempt to approximate and express, in some manner, the mystery of the Godhead.

References above marked “Hornung” are to Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, transl. John Baines (Cornell University Press: 1982). Those marked “Morenz” are to Siefried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, transl. Ann E. Keep (Cornell University Press: 1973).

It has proven a challenge for Christians, over the centuries, to represent the Trinity visually in works of art; however, there have been a number of notable and worthy attempts. One of the most famous, to be sure, is the icon painted by Andrei Rublev in the early 15th century (c. 1410?). It draws upon the same Old Testament narrative (“The Hospitality of Abraham”, Gen 18:1-8) commented on by Philo (cf. above), but has been turned into a beautiful, stylized depiction of the Trinity. The tendency toward a kind of visceral realism in Western art, in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, made the Trinity a more difficult subject matter for the visual arts; however, a pattern was established by Masaccio (c. 1427) in his altar fresco for the cathedral of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (second, below). This pattern, depicting the Father, Son (Christ on the cross), and Spirit (as a dove), was followed by Albrecht Dürer, in his magnificent “Adoration of the Trinity” altarpiece (1511) for the All Saints Chapel of the Landauer “Twelve Brothers House” in Nürnberg (third, at bottom).

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